Friday, 13 September 2013


Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614): Judith and Holofernes. I took this picture in a gallery in Parma, Italy. Fontana is regarded as the first known professional, self-supporting woman artist of the Renaissance. She managed this while mothering 11 children!

Are you ready for some gore?

Johann Liss : Judith in the Tent of Holofernes (1622)

After last week's post on viragos in Victorian art, I had to sideline into the story of Biblical heroine Judith, and her changing portrayal over the centuries. The original story is in the Book of Judith, which is counted as deuterocanonical (it's part of the Catholic and Orthodox bibles, but excluded from the Protestant version). It's very long-winded (full text here) but in summary: Assyrian general Holofernes is rampaging around the land of Judea destroying city after city. Sexy Jewish widow Judith dresses in her best clothes and goes out to the beseiging enemy camp (with one maidservant) promising the Assyrians she will betray her people to them. Holofernes, overwhelmed by her beauty, lets her stay for three days and on the third night she plies him with alcohol.
[2] So Judith was left alone in the tent , with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was overcome with wine.
[4] So every one went out, and no one, either small or great, was left in the bedchamber. Then Judith, standing beside his bed, said in her heart, "O Lord God of all might, look in this hour upon the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. [5] For now is the time to help thy inheritance, and to carry out my undertaking for the destruction of the enemies who have risen up against us." [6] She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there.
[7] She came close to his bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, "Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!" [8] And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed it from his body. [9] Then she tumbled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts; after a moment she went out, and gave Holofernes' head to her maid,
[10] who placed it in her food bag.Then the two of them went out together, as they were accustomed to go for prayer; and they passed through the camp and circled around the valley and went up the mountain to Bethulia and came to its gates.
[11] Judith called out from afar to the watchmen at the gates, "Open, open the gate! God, our God, is still with us, to show his power in Israel, and his strength against our enemies, even as he has done this day!"
The Assyrian army panicked and ran, the Israelites chased them down and slaughtered them, and the land was saved.
Andrea Mantegna: Judith and Holofernes (1490s)

This obscure biblical story has received dispropportionate interest from artists. It has sex, tension, courage, gore ... and a really unusual heroine. But early depictions (such as the one above) are at pains to dissociate Judith from any base motive or emotion. She does what she does from a desire to save her people and a loving obedience to God. While not a virgin, she is still spritually "pure".

This didn't last.
Lucas Cranach the Elder: Judith Victorious (1530ish)
Judith's story started to accrete other layers of meaning. And it particularly attracted the attention of those few female artists working in the Renaissance era. I wonder why...

Fede Galizia (1578-1630): Judith with the Head of Holofernes
 In the picture above, "Judith" is a self-portrait by the artist.

Artemisia Gentieschi (1593-1656) : Judith Slaying Holofernes (approx 1612)
Artemisia Gentileschi's picture is a particularly grim attempt at reclaiming justice: "Judith" is a self-portrait. "Holofernes" is a portrait of her mentor Agostino Tassi, who'd raped her during an art lesson (She was put to the thumbscrew torture during the trial. He was convicted and sentenced to a year's imprisonment, but never served it). That one was painted from the heart, and the realistic physicality of the scene is striking.

She returned to the subject over and over again:

Judith and her Maidservant (1613ish)

Judith and her Maid with the Head of Holofernes (1612ish)

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620ish)
Note that in this version "Judith" is older, "Holofernes" has the same face, and the violence of the blood spurts is even more pronounced. It seems a witness in oils to the fact that the trauma the artist went through has not faded with time.

Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holfernes (1599ish)
Contrast with Caravaggio's portrayal: the figures here are beautifully believable, but the action is not. She's decapitating a man without real muscular effort, and that looks like stage blood.

Carlo Saraceni: Judith and the Head of Holfernes (1615)

Unsurprisingly, the huge majority of depictions of Judith (there are supposedly over 100 paintings and sculptures) emphasise the heroine's sexually alluring qualities.
August Riedel: Judith (1840)
The decapitated head is an accessory sported by a bewitching and commanding woman (as a scoot through this incredibly comprehensive post shows) - and it doesn't take much to see the masochistic undertones enjoyed by the (male) artist and (male) art-loving buyer. In Cristofano's picture below, "Judith" was modelled by his mistress ... and the head is a self-portrait.

Allori Cristofano: Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613)
I'm going to finish with a couple of 20th Century pictures that really don't bother to hide the artist's sexual pleasure in a subject that once upon a time was a metaphor for staunch virtue:

Gustav Klimt: Judith 1 (1901)

Franz Stuck: Judith (1924)
Virtuous and godly heroine - avenging proto-feminist icon - sadistic femme fatale: Judith is what we make of her.


Nym Nix said...

Beautiful and fascinating post.

Janine Ashbless said...

Thanks Nym! It took me about 4 hours to do ... *shakes head at where all the time goes*